By Steven Norris
Why is that some people have a hard time admitting that they are going the wrong way? I saw a cartoon with a caption that read: “Why did it take the Israelites forty years to arrive at the Promised Land?” In it, Miriam is stopping to ask directions from some desert nomad while Moses forges ahead, saying, “We don’t need directions. I know where I am going.”
One of the key features of the Lenten journey is the idea of changing directions — of recognizing that, on our own, we wandered off the beaten path and have gotten caught up in the weeds and thorns of life. Left to our devices, we have often ventured into dangerous territory and reaped the consequences of our mistakes.
Of course, there is sophisticated theological language for this change of direction. The Christian scriptures use the Greek word “metanoia” for this purpose. Literally speaking, it refers to the idea of “changing one’s mind” or “knowing differently.” More commonly, we know it as the act of repentance.
To repent is to choose a different path. It is to recognize that one is lost or on a dead-end road and to make a decision to change directions. Even beyond the external actions, true repentance refers to a change of heart — a desire to live differently, see differently, believe differently.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (found in Luke 15:11-32), the younger son reaches a point of “metanoia” when he finally reaches rock bottom. He has squandered his inheritance, hired himself out to a pig farmer, and is so hungry that the pig slop looks like an appealing meal. In this moment, “metanoia” looks like a young man finally coming to his senses. He has finally traveled far enough down the road to see that there is “no outlet.”
In repentance, the boy sets out for home. As he trudges homeward, he rehearses his confession as he goes. “I’ll just ask dad to make me a servant. Not a son, but a servant. At least that would be better than where I was.”
Do you ever do this? Do you rehearse imaginary conversations in your head about things you dread? I know that I do.The boy has worked it out, gotten all the wording just right in order to convince his father that he is truly sorry.
The trouble is that his father isn’t all that interested in hearing the boy’s confession. The boy barely gets a word out of his mouth before the father is calling for a robe, a ring, and sandals for his feet. Each of these symbolize that the boy is forgiven and restored to his status as a son.
Wait a minute! What is going on here? No confession? No groveling? No guilt-laden rebuke? Maybe the Lenten lesson is this: repentance may actually be less about looking back over all the regrets of our life and saying, “I’m sorry” as it is looking to the future, clothed in the robe of grace and saying, “Wow! Thank you.”